Miss, Mrs., and Ms.: Control of Women Through Language by Kirsten Anderberg
Miss, Mrs., and Ms.: Control of Women Through Language
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com/July 2004)
When you google the word "Miss," the first page includes entries such as Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss America, Miss 60, Miss Saigon…yet when you google "Mrs." Or "Ms.," you do not get any beauty pageant entries at all. As a matter of fact, instead of Miss Universe, you get Mrs. Field's cookies! At a right-wing Christian website called "Fathers for Life," a writer laments, "You can not refer to a woman by the color of her hair. You can not use Mrs. Or Miss. The indistinguishable Ms. is to replace both." It is interesting who wants gender neutral language and who doesn't. And why.
"If a woman is swept off a ship into the water, the cry is `Man overboard!' If she is killed by a hit-and-run driver, the charge is `manslaughter.' If she is injured on the job, the coverage is `workmen's compensation.' But if she arrives at a threshold marked `Men Only,' she knows the admonition is not intended to bar animals or plants or inanimate objects. It is meant for her" --- Alma Graham. When one looks at the overwhelming task at hand, to rework the American language from gender bias, one realizes how much we have invested in male-dominated language already. You cannot just tack an "ess," or "ette" on the end of everything and claim we are all the same. By the very use of an "ess," or "ette," it often distinguishes it as female, or lesser. The use of "ess," or "ette," seems to belittle and comes off as very patronizing.
And how transparent is the use of Miss and Mrs. for women, and just Mr. for men? Just as the google search shows, there is a huge difference between the connotations of Miss and Mrs. Some feel that our language shapes our thought processes, thus we cannot eliminate sexism, while retaining sexist language. Yet other feminists argue changing the language to be gender-neutral can just hide sexist attitudes, rather than changing them. Indeed, in law school, there was a token effort to include women by changing the wording "reasonable man standard" to be the "reasonable person standard." Yet, the *only* people in law school using the wording "reasonable person standard" were women. That is problematic. Many argue there is nothing wrong with using language that inherently distinguishes the sex of a person. But there is a problem with that when prejudices are attached to one sex, and not the other. Often the male version of a word means something very different than the female version of a word. And then there are weird things, like when the word person or man is used. Annie Edson Taylor is described as "the first *person* to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel," while Neil Armstrong is "the first *man* to walk on the moon," one feminist notes. Another non-equal use of gendered wording is in the use of "man and wife." And the words used to describe strong female athletes, for example, such as sweet and cute, also are demeaning, when men are never called those things in sports, and the words really denote a weak femininity.
A woman online recounted a situation where her college professor said she was "one of the top female students in his class." Out of 100 students, 10 were women, and the women were not all at the top of the class. The distinction that the professor made was not inherently demeaning, per se, but it did separate the females out, and unequally. And women also get sucked into this thinking. Female computer science students have been heard saying, "I judge how hard a class is by how few females are in it." People advocating the use of gender-neutral language state the marginalization of women in a male-dominated society as their main impetus. They also cite the very patronizing nature of gender-distinguished language, such as labeling women married or not married in their title, when men are not thus categorized. And there is also an argument that the gender stereotyping in the language, continues the stereotyped behavior in real life.
Ms. is a term for women that does not include a reference to a woman's marital status, as Miss and Mrs. do. Just like the term Mr. for men. Although many think that the term "Ms." was created in the 1970's, during the height of that feminism movement, it actually has more historical roots. Ms. was used as an abbreviated version of Mrs. in the 1700's, and was a pronunciation for Mrs. in the American South. Although some last stalwarts of the Victorian Age may be holding out for usage of the term "Miss," the term "Ms." has become the most respectable way to address a woman in business, for example. Even Miss Manners agrees! In European countries, it appears the married word for a woman is used for married and nonmarried women, to try to avoid sexism, such as madame, senora, and frau for all women…since the married woman title is most equal to the Mr. title, as the Miss versions are diminutive, such as senorita, mademoiselle, fraulein…The word Ms. appeared in Mario Pei's "The Story of Language," in 1949. Currently, the use of Ms. is much more in favor and usage than the word Miss, in America.
The abbreviated "Mr." for mister, is an alteration of the word "master." The words Miss and abbreviated Mrs. are variations of the word "mistress." The word "mistress" means many things; head of household, a lover, a teacher…in 1645, John Evelyn's "Diary" used the word "miss" to mean "a concubine, a kept mistress." In 1665, Samual Pepys used the term capitalized to mean an unmarried woman. In 1615, the use of Mrs. was used for married women as it is today, but it was also used to distinguish an unmarried woman from a child, according to some accounts. It was in the 16th century that master changed to mister, and then the abbreviated Mr. was meant to mean a man, period, not his marital status. By some accounts, the use of Mrs. to only refer to married women did not begin until the 19th century. The use of madam is also interesting. You will hear things like "Madam Chairman," "Madam President," "Madam Justice," yet you will notice they do not include the woman's name. Men in the same situation are usually called by their names, "Justice Thomas," or "President Bush." And words like fireman, policeman, chairman, congressman, etc. do not help things progress much either.
There is a good practical guide to non-sexist language at http://users.waymark.net/now/language.htm. They give many examples of changes you can make to your language to be more inclusive. They also offer many links to gender-neutral language resources. There is a difference between saying, "I gave it to the girl in the office," and "I gave it to the office manager." Often people put a gender pronoun when one is not needed, perpetuating stereotypes, such as a "woman doctor," or a "male nurse." The non-sexist language guide cites examples such as, "Manning the space shuttle, manning the phones, showing sportsmanship, practicing penmanship, doing a man-sized job…" This topic is overdue for attention. I find in writing, I often use a plural pronoun, such as *they* to avoid the genders in words. Instead of saying "she" did something, I will say "they" did something, to avoid sex identification. Avoiding sexist language takes a lot of effort these days, but I think it is effort well spent.